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18th-century painting stolen by mobsters returned to owner decades later

The John Opie piece was stolen from a New Jersey residence in 1969.
painting returned.jpg
Posted at 10:05 PM, Jan 26, 2024
and last updated 2024-01-26 22:05:08-05

An 18th-century oil painting stolen by mobsters from a New Jersey home in the 1960s has been returned to the rightful owner after the work's whereabouts were unknown for decades, federal investigators said.

The large piece, painted by the British artist John Opie in 1784, had been purchased in 1930 in London by Dr. Earl Leroy Wood for $7,500, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Three men with ties to organized crime stole the painting from the Woods' Newark resident in 1969, according to the FBI. The three men initially attempted to steal a valuable coin collection from the home but were thwarted by a burglar alarm, the FBI said. They then returned nearly three weeks later and stole the Opie painting, the FBI said.

One of the men admitted to the burglary while testifying during a trial several years later, the FBI said. He told the court they had acted under the direction of Anthony Imperiale, a friend of the family who had responded to the home following the attempted burglary, the FBI said. The home's caretaker reportedly mentioned to Imperiale -- who at one time served as a New Jersey state senator -- that the Opie painting was "priceless," according to an FBI affidavit.

The man testified that Imperiale told them where the painting was in the house and was in possession of it at that time, though the claims were never corroborated and the politician was never charged, the FBI said.

The painting is believed to have transferred hands due to law enforcement pressure and its whereabouts after the theft were unknown -- until 2021, according to the FBI.

In December 2021, an accounting firm in Washington County, Utah, acting as a trustee for a deceased client informed the FBI that they believed they had discovered the stolen Opie painting.

Their client had hired the firm to liquidate his estate upon his death to primarily donate the funds to charity, according to FBI Special Agent Gary France. While appraising a painting for auction, they discovered the work was likely the stolen Opie, he said.

The client unwittingly obtained the painting in 1989 after purchasing a home in Hallandale, Florida, from Joseph Covello Sr., an organized crime member who had been indicted and ultimately convicted of RICO charges, France said. The client subsequently moved the painting, which was included in the sale of the home, to St. George, Utah, where it remained until his death in 2020.

"Up until the time of his death, we have no evidence to believe that he knew otherwise that what he had was a quite significant painting," France told reporters during a press call on Friday.

It is unclear what happened to the painting in the 20 years between its theft and the purchase of the Hallandale home -- the involved parties have all since died -- though the piece is believed to have been in the hands of organized crime members, the FBI said.

After a Utah judge confirmed the proper ownership, France presented the painting to Earl Leroy Wood's son, Dr. Francis Wood, at the 96-year-old's home in Newark on Jan. 11, the FBI said.

Tom Wood, one of Francis Wood's four children, told ABC News the family was shocked to hear the painting had reappeared.

"We had not much hope we would ever see it again, so it's really been improbable and remarkable to get it back," he said.

France said the case presented various challenges, including pulling up decades-old records, though the FBI received help from multiple agencies and art institutions, including the Tate Britain in London, where a sister painting to the Opie piece is housed.

"Over the course of 21 years, this is one of the most unique and intriguing cases I've had the opportunity to work across a wide variety of federal violations," France said.

"As we started learning more about this case, I was both intrigued about what we are learning about this painting -- both historically about how old it was but also about the investigative intrigue about the fact that there might be ties to organized crime," he said.

The current value of the recovered Opie is unclear, France said, though he surmised that given its age and intriguing history it would be worth a "substantial amount." The piece was recovered in "fabulous condition," he said.

Tom Wood said the family plans to have the piece inspected, cleaned and appraised and may eventually see if there is any museum interest in it. Though for now, he said they want to enjoy it -- especially his father, who grew up with the painting and about 20 years ago purchased a small Opie as a "placeholder" of the burglarized original.

"Having it stolen was hard for him," Tom Wood said. "I think it was even a little emotional for him to get it back, to actually see it two weeks ago after 50-some years."

"We'd never thought we would see it," he said. "It was quite remarkable."